Here’s a movie no one ever talks about: Bernardo Bertolucci’s Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man. It’s difficult to find on video, and seemed something of an afterthought even when it opened in theaters in 1981. One reason for its being ignored might ironically be the reason it’s now screening again in New York: It was shot by Carlo Di Palma, the late, great Italian cinematographer who’s getting a retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Bertolucci’s work had always been known for its lush visuals, but that was always partly credited to his regular director of photography, Vittorio Storaro, who had become something of a brand name by the 1980s, having been commandeered by Francis Ford Coppola for Apocalypse Now and by Warren Beatty for Reds. Consequently, Tragedy was Bertolucci’s first film in a decade and a half without Storaro — who was stuck on Coppola’s runaway production of One From the Heart — and for some moviegoers at the time, this was kind of a big deal.
But Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man is beautiful in its own right, filled with regret and tenderness and folly. And Di Palma’s autumnal, lived-in images — a far cry from Storaro’s otherworldly, super-saturated dances of light — turn out to be ideal for a tale so perplexing, tragicomic, and human. Bertolucci’s protagonist, Primo (Ugo Tognazzi), is a wealthy Parma cheese manufacturer who watches from the roof of his huge villa one day as his son, Giovanni (Ricky Tognazzi), is kidnapped by left-wing terrorists. They ask for a substantial ransom; unfortunately, Primo’s factory is faltering and he’s in debt. While he and his wife, Barbara (Anouk Aimée), set about raising money from wealthy acquaintances, Primo discovers more about his own child. He meets Laura (Laura Morante), Giovanni’s girlfriend, and Adelfo (Victor Cavallo), a worker-priest with connections to the kidnappers. When he hears that Giovanni might have died in captivity, Primo, who was once a hero of the Resistance, does the unthinkable: He keeps that news a secret and tries to use the ransom money to save his factory instead.
Bertolucci has said that he saw the film as a spiritual sequel to 1900, his great 1976 epic about the struggle between Marxism and Fascism in the first half of the twentieth century. In that arrangement, Primo could be seen as the now-pathetic continuation of the earlier movie’s Marxist hero, Olmo (Gérard Depardieu) — the aging revolutionary now grown fat, rich, and content as his world becomes ever more insular. But 1900 was also a very personal picture, in which historical forces were echoed by psychological ones: The dialectic between its two protagonists — the laborer and the landowner, the Marxist and the capitalist — may have been rooted in history, but it also reflected Bertolucci’s own torn psyche, the ongoing struggle between his revolutionary, idealized self and his complacent, bourgeois reality.
So the profound disillusionment that runs through Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man, made just a few years after the visionary, flag-waving fury of 1900, is striking. Over the course of the 1970s, Italian politics had become more fractured and violent, with competing guerrilla movements taking turns spilling blood; in 1978, the Red Brigades had kidnapped and killed former prime minister Aldo Moro. The decade had begun for Bertolucci with his masterpiece The Conformist, in which he echoed Jean-Luc Godard’s great line from Le Petit Soldat: “The time for reflection is past; now begins the time for action.” By contrast, the reflective stasis of Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man could easily embody the opposite idea.
This is a questioning, heartbreaking work. Nobody’s on the right side here. Primo shamelessly manipulates his predicament, and Giovanni appears to have followed his youthful revolutionary instincts into associating with exactly the wrong crowd. (At one point, Laura tells Primo that his son had once considered kidnapping him.) The women are as close as the film comes to having a moral center — Laura and Barbara both desperately want Giovanni back, and are willing to cast aside politics and class warfare to do so — but the director finds ways to undercut them as well.
For years, Bertolucci had made films in which his protagonists operated partly as symbols in elaborate political and psychosexual formulae. But in Tragedy, for the first time in ages, the people on-screen breathe with real, lived-in complexity; they are at times dumb, sweet, cruel, and touching, and the spiritual chaos that the director orchestrates never feels like it’s merely in service of proving a point. To put it another way, Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man is the rare Bertolucci film that evokes the messiness of life. And it ends with one of the most affecting finales of his career, in a scene that offers some resolution but little closure. Don’t miss your chance to witness it on a big screen.
Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Screens August 1, Film Society of Lincoln Center
Screens as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Shot by Carlo Di Palma” retrospective